The talk will be based on some of the material in the joint survey with Etienne Ghys

"Signatures in algebra, topology and dynamics"

http://arxiv.org/abs/1512.092582

In the 19th century Sturm's theorem on the number of roots of a real polynomial motivated Sylvester to define the signature of a quadratic form. In the 20th century the classification of quadratic forms over algebraic number fields motivated Witt to introduce the "Witt groups" of stable isomorphism classes of quadratic forms over arbitrary fields. Still in the 20th century the study of high-dimensional topological manifolds with nontrivial fundamental group motivated Wall to introduce the "Wall groups" of stable isomorphism classes of quadratic forms over arbitrary rings with involution. In our survey we interpreted Sturm's theorem in terms of the Witt-Wall groups of function fields. The talk will emphasize the common thread running through this developments, namely the notion of the localization of a ring inverting elements. More recently, the Cohn localization of inverting matrices over a noncommutative ring has been applied to topology in the 21st century, in the context of the speaker's algebraic theory of surgery.